Credit: Robert Palmer, Brookhaven National Laboratory, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives
As I was assembling a book display for Women’s History Month way back in March, I stumbled across a page about Sau Lan Wu in one of our library books: Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. I thought it would be fun to write about a female physicist with Asian origins who is currently alive. Wu is the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and continues to contribute to scientific innovations to this day. It seemed fitting to post this blog entry now during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, as we all take time to consider Asian American contributions to our world.
Front cover of Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky, 2016.
Sau Lan Wu was born during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the early 1940s during World War II. Wu grew up in poverty. Her mother, Ying Lai, was the sixth concubine to Tat Chee U, a wealthy man who became known as the Ginger King for his control over the ginger industry at the time. Lai lived with U during her pregnancy, but was disliked by U’s primary wife and was cast out shortly before giving birth to Sau Lan Wu. As a child, Wu slept next to a rice shop and attended a school in the slums. When Wu was 12 years old, her father played a more active role in her life and decided to help her family move to an apartment in a better region. It also seems that he helped fund Wu and her brother’s better education at missionary schools.
After completing secondary school in 1959, Wu was determined to become financially independent of men, and her illiterate mother urged her to pursue an education and supported her desire to go to college. Did you know that Wu applied to 50 universities in the USA? I admire her resolve! She randomly selected the names of these 50 colleges from a hefty library book. Vassar College turned out to be the one! The college offered her a full scholarship in 1960, and she graduated summa cum laude after completing her degree in three years. She next decided to pursue a higher degree in physics. At that time, Princeton only admitted wives of male faculty. Caltech rejected her, stating that it had no dorms for women and claiming that it only selected “exceptional” women. However, she received offers from Berkeley, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard. How was that not “exceptional”? It was Harvard’s PhD program that Wu chose. She also happened to be the only woman Harvard accepted in her area of study that year.
Portrait of Sau Lan Wu pointing to a chart, circa 1989.
After graduating from Harvard in 1970, MIT offered Wu a research associate position. In 1974, Sau Lan Wu and her team at Brookhaven lab discovered a fourth type of quark called the “charm quark.” Their finding was referred to as the November Revolution, because it helped lead to the development of the Standard Model of particle physics. In 1977, the University of Wisconsin-Madison hired Wu as an assistant professor. After about two years as a faculty member, she led her team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to discover the gluon, an elementary particle that helps hold quarks together. Later, in 1995, she received the European Physical Society Prize for High-Energy Physics for her gluon findings.
In July 2012, Wu was a member of the team at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that identified what appears to be the Higgs boson particle, the missing component of the Standard Model of particle physics. The observations and data thus far seem to indicate that the particle is in fact the Higgs boson, but more study is needed in order to achieve confirmation. For more about her observations of the Higgs boson particle, watch this video of a talk she gave at Vassar College in October 2012.
In addition to those mentioned above, Wu has won a variety of honors and awards during her lifetime. Some of these include: Outstanding Junior Investigator Award of U.S. Department of Energy (1980), Fellow of the American Physical Society (1992), Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1996), and more!
Would you believe that Sau Lan Wu originally desired to be a painter? If she had pursued that path, who knows whether these important findings in the particle physics field would ever have been discovered? Thankfully for the science world, a biography of Marie Curie nudged her to become a scientist! Wu has come a long way since she arrived in the USA with only $40 in her pocket! Despite her initial poverty and the obstacles she faced as a woman, she has overcome these challenges and made some of the most important discoveries in particle physics. In fact, not only did she overcome challenges she faced as a woman, but also those associated with discrimination of her Asian heritage. Let us not overlook the women who have contributed to scientific achievements such as Wu’s. If you’re interested in reading more about Wu’s struggles as a female scientist and her personal views about her discoveries, check out some of the articles below.
I will leave you with this piece of advice that Wu likes to give her physics students:
Sau Lan Wu quote from an article: “Three Major Physics Discoveries and Counting,” Quanta Magazine, July 18, 2018.
Caitlin Shaffer is an information professional who has worked at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives as Library Project Assistant and as a Field Study Intern. She holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from George Washington University, and she studied History as her minor. She helped assess the condition of the library’s rare book collection as she prepares the books for a collection move and she worked with collection digitization. One of her favorite books from the Niels Bohr Library is Water Wonders by Jean Thompson. In her spare time, Caitlin enjoys recommending Young Adult books and creating content for her Bookstagram feed. She also likes to support Storiarts, a small bookish business that donates a portion of each purchase to fund literacy for children.
Caption: Photo by Caitlin Shaffer as @spinesthatshine: Caitlin’s Nancy Drew book collection and Storiarts Nancy Drew writing gloves